Agony Aunt

October 16, 1998

Q) Is there any way of spotting students who are struggling to keep up with my course, for whatever reason, before it is too late?

Terry Kee

Level one year tutor in chemistry, Leeds University

A) It is relatively easy to set up one-way communication channels enabling us to contact the students. But it is quite another matter getting them to be pro-active when they have problems. Students often feel embarrassed about bothering staff but they might feel better about consulting a fellow student if they are in difficulties. We are experimenting with local counselling for students run by students.

Our admissions staff will often let me know if they think particular students may be more vulnerable. In my experience, student problems are less likely to be academic, particularly in the early stages, and far more likely to be related to not settling in or perhaps financial difficulties. I have a three-step approach. First, if a tutor tells me a student has missed a session I send them an email asking them to come and see me if they have a problem. Many just write back saying they had flu or whatever and I ask them to let the office know in future. Sometimes they come and see me to talk. If they do not respond at all and continue to miss sessions - lecture attendance records are a good idea - I will contact them through their hall warden and even speak to the parents if we seem to have lost all contact.

Mantz Yorke

Director of the centre for higher education development, Liverpool John Moores University

A) From my research into non-completion it seems students need support in the very early days. Often if students are going to leave a course, they will do it early on. There is a hint that those who come through clearing may be more at risk because the application was over the 'phone and they arrived in a hurry.

In modular courses there may be less opportunity for formative assessments and I believe it is important to make an effort to fit these in, especially with large student numbers. The first piece of assessed work ought, ideally, to come in the first six weeks so that students can get a feel for what is expected. This is a good opportunity for feedback. Students need to feel bound to their institution and if they do not they can get lost. Tutorials are starting to disappear and this is problematic and means, perhaps, that we need to rethink the role of the lecture. Higher education is a social experience and if we want to keep students, we must recognise this.

Carol Smith

Student services manager, Leeds Metropolitan University

A) It is not always easy to distinguish between the personal and academic problem. Be aware of non-verbal signals. Look out for students who seem under stress, who seem to want to talk, and then listen to them. In many cases a sympathetic ear is enough. A sudden change in performance from someone who had previously been doing perfectly well is often a tell-tale sign that something serious is wrong. It might be a family problem, a bereavement, a relationship breakdown. If an opportunity presents itself, do ask the student if something is wrong.

Of course, such personal skills vary from person to person. Some lecturers prefer not to get involved, seeing their role as teachers only. Others want to change the student's life and will want to jump in. We advise lecturers to have more confidence in their own human responses.

Teaching problems?

Send them to The Thes and our experts will answer them.

Write to Alison Utley


Admiral House

66-68 East Smithfield

London E1 9XY

Fax 0113 2502156


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